College is a time of growth when new choices are made, new wisdom is gained and new outlooks are achieved. With that in mind, it's entirely fitting that Jacksonville State University is taking another opportunity to help grow the community we serve.
This summer, just one block away from a cornucopia of fast food restaurants, Dr. Joseph Akpan and Dr. Larry Beard of JSU's College of Education and Professional Studies have joined master gardeners and volunteers from Jacksonville's First United Methodist Church and Kitty Stone Elementary School in creating a community garden that is providing healthy, fresh produce for neighbors in need.
But this garden on Gayle Avenue is about more than food. It also provides nourishment for the soul, as the gardeners and volunteers teach the community about healthier lifestyles and self-sufficiency, and provide a place for social interaction in an environment harmonious with nature.
This isn't the first time that JSU faculty and students have taken up hoes for shared sustainability. In the early 1910s, a State Normal School farm south of Jacksonville provided students with a roof over their heads and food for the table in exchange for their willingness to work the land. It also provided a laboratory for agricultural education.
While gardening methods have changed since then, the concept of community gardening has not. Within Jacksonville’s garden begun by the First United Methodist Church there are separate smaller plots that make up a large sea of green where okra, corn, spinach, several varieties of beans, eggplant and tomatoes thrive under the vigilant care of volunteers. Through the Jacksonville Christian Outreach Center, the bounty from these crops is routed to the tables of the needy. To date, the garden has produced close to 200 pounds of produce. Volunteers hope to see that grow to a ton by season’s end.
Mike Limerick with Jacksonville’s First United Methodist Church and Dr. Akpan, a professor in JSU’s secondary education department, provided the seeds for JSU’s portion of the garden. Dr. Akpan and Dr. Beard, a professor of special education curriculum and instruction, sowed them in April.
Dr. Akpan knows a lot about agricultural sustainability. He grew up in Nigeria, where gardening was not only a necessity, but also a means of producing income.
"I have been doing this all my life,” he said during a recent tour of the garden. “I believe in doing something to help people in general. Since I came here (to Jacksonville), I continue to own a garden. I used to bring my crops to my colleagues and other members of the Jacksonville community. This year, I am doing this instead.
Why give up his personal garden for one that serves a community?
“I'm doing it to help the people in the area, to help those who believe in eating fresh vegetables, to help the community where I find myself,” he said.
“When I travel around Jacksonville, in some ways I see people hurting. I want to leave them better than when I met them. That’s why I am planting this garden, to feed the people.
“It is not about me. It’s about helping the community at large. Regardless of where you come from, regardless of who you are, everyone is welcome to feed from this garden.”
For Dr. Beard, working the garden is a return to his roots, literally.
“My granddad was a gardener and I grew up in a garden. I garden because I can get my fingernails dirty, play in the dirt, and see something come out of it. A garden is beautiful; even okra has some really pretty flowers,” he said.
Earlier this spring, Dr. Akpan sent out email to engage volunteers. As is often the case, the number of enthusiastic helpers waned as the summer wore on and people got busier. A very rainy growing season has made keeping up with the weeds challenging.
Now that the crops are beginning to come in, the steadfast are asking for help.
“Harvest is plenty but the laborers are few,” Dr. Akpan said with a smile as he picked a handful of squash. “We welcome any who can lend a hand. They don’t even have to let us know they’re coming, but it would be nice.”
Nicer still, he said, is a world where everyone could tend a little plot of land.
About the photo: Dr. Larry Beard, left, and Dr. Joseph Akpan in JSU's portion of the community garden. (Matt Reynolds/JSU photo)